Stephen Harper's top rivals say a new report showing that only two women have refused the oath of citizenship because of rules demanding their faces be uncovered proves Conservatives are using the contentious issue as a diversion.
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau and NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair were both asked Wednesday to weigh in on a CBC News story that provided more context to the niqab controversy that has dominated parts of the election campaign.
Citizenship and Immigration spokeswoman Sonia Lesage told CBC this week that no citizenship applications have been refused based on the policy introduced in 2011, and only two individuals withdrew from the ceremony because of the change.
Lesage told The Huffington Post Canada Wednesday that the policy affects about 100 women per year.
At a Trudeau event in Surrey, B.C., a reporter noted there have been more than 680,000 citizenship ceremonies since Tories introduced the rule change. He asked the Liberal leader what that statistic says about the impact the debate is having on the campaign.
Trudeau said it was clear the issue was being raised by politicians who lack plans for economic growth. And the Liberal leader targeted Harper directly, accusing him of seeking to "distract" attention from his record.
"This prime minister would rather play up the politics of fear and division, and get everyone talking about anxieties and hot button issues, than reflect on the fact that for 10 years, Mr. Harper has had the worst growth rate of any prime minister since R.B. Bennett in the depths of the Great Depression," he said.
That was much the same message delivered by NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair, who previously dubbed the niqab issue a "weapon of mass distraction."
Speaking in Iqaluit, Nunavut, the NDP leader said Canadians were talking about "two cases (out of) some 600,000 people who wanted to take the oath with the niqab." Mulcair added that while he understood that this is a sensitive matter that makes people uncomfortable, the courts have ruled on it.
And, as he has in recent days, Mulcair reiterated rules already ensure that women remove veils and confirm their identities before taking the oath.
"Just as you have to uncover your face for your passport," he said. "And I totally agree with those rules."
NDP candidates express opposition to niqab
The niqab debate is particularly heated in Quebec, where the Bloc Quebecois has accused Mulcair's team of a position that is offside with a majority of Quebecers.
Several Quebec NDP candidates have recently gone public in expressing their opposition to the wearing of face veils during citizenship ceremonies — including one candidate who publicized her stance Tuesday with a media release on NDP letterhead.
Incumbent Romeo Saganash, who once ran for NDP leader, also called the niqab "oppressor's clothing" at an all-candidates' debate this week.
At the French-language leaders' debate last week, Harper told Mulcair that he would never tell his daughter that "a woman should cover her face because she's a woman."
CBC News has video of the heated exchange:
Harper also tweeted a graphic celebrating the moment just before the Munk foreign policy debate in Toronto.
But Green Party Leader Elizabeth May also said during the French debate that the entire controversy was preventing meaningful discussion of larger issues.
"What is the impact of the niqab on the economy? What is the impact of the niqab on climate change?" she asked. "What is the impact of the niqab on the jobless? It is a false debate meant as distraction from the real challenges for Canada."
The Federal Court of Appeal two weeks ago upheld a lower court's ruling that found the Harper government's policy of banning the niqab during citizenship oaths unlawful.
The Conservatives responded by asking the Supreme Court for leave to appeal the decision and promised to introduce legislation in the first 100 days if they are re-elected to prohibit the wearing of the veil during the citizenship oath.
With files from Althia Raj
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